As the song goes, it's the most wonderful time of the year. My to-do list is neverending but I don't mean the unfun/errands/shopping/adulting type of to do list (although that one does tend to also be neverending). I am refering to my list of festive events to attend around the city at this time of year.
Every year, there seem to be new events organized and added to Vancouver events calendars, making it impossible to attend every single one. While new events are constantly being added, some of my favorite events seem to be the ones that have been around for a long time and really put me in the Christmas spirit.
Earlier this week, the famjam and I hopped on the SkyTrain and headed to downtown Vancouver to attend some of these events that I have fond memories of attending in the past. The great thing is, there are a number of events that are within walking distance to one another so it is easy to see them all in one go. Another great thing: they are all free to attend, so it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to bring the whole family! However, they are all fundraisers, so donating to the excellent causes is really encouraged. After all, it is the season to give!
Here is what we got up to and an itinerary of our adventure:
Stop 1: Gingerbread Lane at the Hyatt Regency Hotel
Located in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, next to Burrard SkyTrain Station, this event showcases some outstanding gingerbread houses created by local organizations, schools, individuals and culinary artists. I am always amazed at what people come up with and the patience that they must have to create such masterpieces. The details on some of them are just incredible! I will share some with you here but you will have to attend the event to see more! I don't want to spoil it for you!
Entry is free but donations are being accepted for the Make-A-Wish Foundation (BC and Yukon division) which is a charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. As an added perk, donations allow you to cast a vote for your favorite gingerbread creation. If you are unable to make it to Gingerbread Lane, you can also donate online.
Stop 2: Lights of Hope at St. Paul's Hospital
We continued south on Burrard Street, about 8 blocks (roughly a ten minute walk at the most) away from Gingerbread Lane until we reached St. Paul's Hospital and their eye catching annual light display and fundraising campaign called Lights of Hope. This display takes 6 weeks to build with over 150 volunteers! It really is a sight to see! Lennon loved walking through and exploring the lights and it made for some great photos! If you are unable to pass by and check this display out, you can also donate online.
While you are in the area, you can also check out the light display at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel, which is across St.Paul's Hospital.
Stop 3: The Official Vancouver Christmas Tree
Vancouver's version of New York's Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree (it totally reminds me of it anyways...and Home Alone 2). The main 50-foot tall tree and its neighbors are in a new location this year, at Robson Square. Before the annual tree lighting ceremony, one can help light the tree by "purchasing a bulb" which supports the Vancouver International Children's Festival. After the ceremony, which happened at the beginning of December, donations can be made online.
If you have time, you can tick off another holiday event off your list and check out the outdoor skating rink on the lower level of Robson Square, directly below where the trees are.
Stop 4: Festival of Trees at the Four Seasons Hotel
Similar to Gingerbread Lane, the Festival of Trees event showcases Christmas trees decorated by local businesses and individuals while raising funds for BC Children's Hospital. There are some truly unique trees and there is no shortage of decorating inspiration that can be found here! There is no admission fee but there is a suggested donation of $5 (which also gives you a vote for your favorite tree...if you can pick just one. But you can always vote for multiples seeing as your money will be going to a worthy cause)! You can also donate and vote online. Here are some photos from the Festival of Trees but I won't share them all as I don't want to spoil any surprises!
This was definitely a fun festive adventure. You can incorporate an adventure like this with shopping, a meal at one of the many restaurants, cocktails or a night out on the town. You can grab a hot beverage from one of the many coffee shops to keep you warm along the way, and you don't even need to drive downtown as the locations of these events are all within walking distance to multiple SkyTrain stations. I love that you don't have to spend so much money to attend these events either and that the money you do spend by donating to the charities is going right back into the community and to very important causes. Here is a little map I made to show you the route and how close everything is:
There are also plenty of festive decorations that you will notice along the way, in store fronts, hotel lobbies, and so on.
There may not be any snow on the ground downtown, but with all these festive events, we really did feel like we were in a Winter Wonderland! Are there any other sights to see in the nearby area that we missed?!
Hope you are all enjoying the festivities!
Two weekends ago, we went on a much needed getaway to Whistler, BC. It is only about an 1:45 away from us but we don't visit often enough. We don't ski or snowboard but you don't need to do either to enjoy what Whistler has to offer. There are lots of other activities to enjoy, whether that be relaxing at a spa, dining at on of the many restaurants or hitting the slopes. There is also an abundance of beautiful hiking trails in Whistler and the surrounding areas.
Joffre Lakes is a hike I had been hearing about for a long time. The photos I had seen on social media just blew me away and I had to see this place for myself! It is not actually in Whistler, but about an hour north, near the town of Pemberton. We weren't sure if it would be wise to do this with a 15 month old, especially as it was off season but I contacted Instagram users that had hiked it the day before we were planning to hike (by searching the hash tag #JoffreLakes) to see what the conditions were like and to get some advice on whether it would be appropriate to hike it with a baby. We brought our hiking backpack along just in case and decided to wait til our second day in Whistler to see how we felt about tackling this hike.
The second day arrived and we were exhausted from a 15 month old keeping us up all night. Since we had brought the hiking backpack and all our active wear (and had even scrambled to a sporting goods store the night before heading to Whistler to get the hubby some proper footwear), we decided we may as well put it to use and hike, despite our tiredness (hey, we're used to it by now..sort of). We bundled up and off we went.
When we arrived at the parking lot, we were surprised to see only about 8 cars there. I recalled seeing a video from a couple months prior on how busy the hike was and how horrendous the parking situation was and that the only available spots to park were 2-3km away. It was 9:15am and we thought maybe it would get busier later on. It was also low season. We didn't mind at all that we could park right next to the entrance!!
We geared up and photographed the birds that loiter around waiting for hikers to feed them and then began our hike.
The main features of Joffre Lakes Provincial Parks are the three glacial fed lakes. We were told that the Lower lake is nice but it does not compare to the Middle and Upper lakes and we were excited to see what all the excitement was about. The Lower lake was not far after the beginning of the hike, maybe about 5 minutes into it, if that. It was beautiful but we took our photos and hurried along as we were still trying to warm up (we weren't as prepared for the cold weather as we should have been and it was starting to lightly snow).
The hike to the Middle Lake took us about an hour to get to from the Lower Lake. It was pretty much all an incline but pretty gradual except for a few steep parts.
Everyone we had talked to was right. The Middle Lake was just GORGEOUS! It was breathtaking and it wasn't even a clear day. Photos definitely don't do this place justice but here is a photo from the Middle Lake. Notice the snowflakes (or perhaps those were snowflake drops on my lens)!
A signpost said the Upper Lake was about a half hour past the Middle Lake. It began to get very muddy which we were told it would from those that I had contacted on Instagram. Lennon was getting a bit fussy so we were distracting him with snacks on the way up and taking our time as I was being cautious with my footing. After about 40 minutes we began to see glimpses of the Upper Lake.
It seemed like it was right there but we still had to hike around some trees and rocks to get to it. We weren't sure if we were going the right way as we got to an area that wasn't a path but, rather, some really big rocks. We decided to tackle the rocks as it seemed like the only way to go. As we got closer to the lake we saw hikers at the top of the rocks but then they disappeared so we figured we maybe missed the trail. We got to an opening that let us walk up to the lake and WOW! It was just amazing. So beautiful. But also very cold!
We decided it would be best to turn around and head back down at this point as the snow was coming down and we weren't getting any warmer. It started to clear up a bit on our way back.
The hike took us 3.5 hours round trip. We got to the Upper Lake but not sure how much further it would have been had we found the right trail (and this is assuming we weren't on the right trail). I would allow 4 hours just to be safe. We did do it with a baby on our back so perhaps it could be even quicker! Even though it wasn't a very clear day, this was such a beautiful hike. I can't even imagine how awesome it must be in the summertime! Photos don't do it justice though so be sure to add this to your bucket lists!
This was the longest hike we had done with Lennon and he did really well. On the way up he was super excited and talking a lot and learning new words (rock, tree, water...). He got a bit fussy just after the Middle Lake but having snacks was really helpful. I didn't even need to take him out of the carrier. He fell asleep on the way down for about 20 minutes. It was a lot of fun taking him up. The plan was that I would carry him on the way up and Perry would carry him on the way down but I was comfortable and I didn't feel like stopping to switch up so I carried him the whole way. All 21 lbs of him and 6.5lbs of the carrier! He wasn't sat very well as he was leaning so that he could see better (he doesn't want to miss anything)! I felt fine but when we got to the car and I took off the carrier, I really felt the tension! Maybe it wasn't the brightest idea but I feel fine now! I am looking forward to taking him on more hikes. He is definitely a fan of being out in the wilderness and I don't blame him!
What other hikes should we add to our bucket lists?!
I leave you with some more photos from our adventure at Joffre Lakes! Enjoy!
Viva Las Vegas: A Babymoon Adventure
This time last year, the hubby and I were babymooning in Vegas. As I was looking back on photos, it seemed like an appropriate time to share the story and photos from our last trip before we entered parenthood.
When the hubby and I found out we were expecting, I was adamant that we go on a "Babymoon" - one last trip, just us two, before the baby arrived. Travel is a big part of our lives and our story and we didn't know how things would be once the baby arrived. We figured travel wouldn't be the same with a baby (and as we have learned, it certainly isn't) so it was important for us to go on this trip. Deciding on where to go was the next step. A warm climate was a priority. Peru is high on our list of places to visit but then I thought maybe a long jaunt like that while being pregnant may not be such a good idea. We also wanted the trip to be affordable and Peru would not have been. I thought about somewhere closer to us, closer to Vancouver - Hawaii or Mexico came to mind. It made sense to go somewhere that we could relax and those are two places that I associate with relaxing. I also decided it would be best to go somewhere that wouldn't require much planning, if any at all and somewhere that we wouldn't mind missing out on attractions, so all of a sudden Hawaii didn't seem like a great idea as I would want to do too much sightseeing and planning of our days since neither of us have been there before. Mexico seemed like the obvious choice. There are constantly all inclusive packages on offer and we seem to be the only people from Vancouver tha haven't been to Mexico! However, I was informed by an employer (who was also expecting a baby at the time) that they canceled their trip to Mexico due to a nasty bug that was going around. Mexico was soon eliminated from the list. So where else could we go that wouldn't' require much planning, wouldn't break the bank and would offer us a chance to relax? Las Vegas of course!
We had already been multiple times - 4 times for Perry and 3 times for me, the last time having been less than a year prior for my sister's 30th birthday. Returning to a place that we had already visited meant we didn't need to plan a great deal and wouldn't feel like we needed to see every attraction there is (much like going on our first trip with baby!). It is also quite affordable when flying out of Bellingham instead of Vancouver and the hotels are also very affordable for what they are. When we visited less than a year before, we stayed at Treasure Island and, while planning the trip, I received an email from TI with promotional offers that fit nicely into our budget. Since we were satisfied with our previous stay there, and the location really is great, we decided to book there again.
When the hubby and I have traveled in the past, it has always been a whirlwind tour, trying to fit everything in, staying one night here, two nights there. We booked Treasure Island for 4 nights and this was one of the longest stays we have had in a hotel during all our travels, so this thought of not packing and moving to another city or hotel eased our minds.! We were definitely excited for this!
The day came take off to Vegas! I was nearing the end of my second trimester, I was feeling GREAT, and it really worked out that we booked for this time in the pregnancy journey as it seems like many insurance companies don't cover any pregnancy complications past 30ish weeks and there don't seem to be any companies that cover going into labour or the baby should you happen to go into preterm labour (be sure to check on this if planning a babymoon or travel during pregnancy).
We arrived in Vegas, took a shuttle to the hotel and first thing we did was head to the pool to relax. There was a pool party complete with a DJ but we found this fun. The rest of our babymoon consisted of the following:
Eating our faces off
Stops included Serendipity 3, Cheesecake Factory, Spice Market Buffet at Planet Hollywood, Carlo's Bakery at the Venetian. We were on vacation after all!
Catching a show
We had already seen Cirque du Soleil "One" (the Michael Jackson themed show) and "Love" (twice) so we decided on Criss Angel's "Believe". We were definitely in disbelief! Great show!
Taking an insane amount of baby bump photos
....which is just as well seeing as baby didn't stay in in time for my maternity photo shoot!
Visiting and exploring all the different hotels
They all have something unique to see on the inside - and out!
Sleeping in and lounging by the pool
Going for walks to see the sights and the novelty that is Vegas
Checking out one of the outlet malls
Being silly, enjoying each other's company and getting excited for our journey into parenthood
And, of course, a bit of slot machining!
The best word to describe the trip is "bittersweet". We were enjoying each other's company so much (obviously) but the thought of it being our last trip as just us two (for a long time to come anyways) was definitely bittersweet. The thing is, it wasn't just us two. The presence of a little human inside the womb definitely added to the excitement and specialness of this trip. We were on cloud 9 as we were on our honeymoon and we will always cherish the memories from the babymoon with our little jumping bean (sort of) present.
I will let the photo gallery below do the rest of the storytelling of our babymoon adventure. Click on the photo for a description. The photos were taken on an old iPhone with very poor quality. So glad I have invested in a much better camera since then!
One thing is for certain, I HIGHLY recommend a getaway with your significant other prior to baby's arrival, even if it is something nearby!
Last month we ventured to Los Angeles for our first long distance vacation with Lennon. We were excited for some sun and relaxation and even more excited that my mom and sister were joining us (ahem babysitters ahem). Perry and I have been to Los Angeles on multiple occasions (3 times for me and 4 for Perry) as has my sister, Melina so the great thing about this is there wasn't much planning involved and we didn't feel like we needed to run around to see every attraction that LA has to offer. My mom and dad visited in the 1980s for their honeymoon so it had been a long time for her but she was not fussed about what we did and was just happy to not be sat at a desk. Being a place we had already visited and having the extra hands made LA a great first choice for our first family trip. Here's how it went down!
After surviving Lennon's first plane ride (or more so our first plane ride with a baby in tow), we took a courtesy shuttle to Payless Car Rental to rent a car. Having read the reviews, we were anticipating a long line and a long line is what we arrived to. We couldn't complain though with the ridiculously cheap rate of . We waited about 45 minutes to see an agent that then directed us to a location in the parking lot to pick out a car of our choice. There were no cars left in the category we selected so we got to pick one from the next level (which worked out in our favor as we had a LOT of baggage). Despite having 1.5 stars out of a possible 5, the staff does really try their best and the rates are unbeatable! (An aside: what is even more unbeatable? It cost us only $27.50 to fill up at the end of the trip....5 days of driving all over LA! I couldn't believe it)!
The one stressful thing there was about planning this trip was the accommodations. We were trying to keep spending to a minimum but the exchange rate was not improving. When Perry and I visited in 2013, we stayed in the Hollywood Downtowner Inn, a budget hotel/motel that was in a very convenient location and had everything we needed at a price that didn't break the bank (and included breakfast on top of that). We booked a room at the same hotel for a nominal price of $475 US and since there would be 4 of us, that worked out to a price that fit the budget. We contemplated booking two rooms but with the exchange rate being the way it was, we thought we would just keep the one room, especially since we weren't planning on spending much time in our room. My one concern was how Lennon's bedtime would work out, especially since there wasn't another room to put him in. We looked at booking a room at Embassy Suites which we have stayed at plenty of times before and would have worked well as the rooms offer a living room and bedroom and would allow us to put him to sleep in the bedroom while we unwinded in the living room. The rates were much more though and we figured we could spend that money elsewhere (and seeing as we have a 5 week trip to Europe booked for the upcoming month, it made sense to us to not prioritize staying in a pricier hotel). We called the Hollywood Downtowner Inn to see if they had a family suite and they mentioned they had something in the works but would not be ready for our arrival. I called a few days before as well to see if the suite was ready but the representative I spoke with was a bit vague. We brought along the playpen and thought we could set it up in the kitchenette and move it to the room when we would go to bed or just bring him into bed with us when we went to bed. We had no idea how it would work and just thought we would play it by ear. It had been a long day and we were exhausted so we were really looking forward to getting some rest.
We finally arrived to the hotel at about 9:30pm - way past Lennon's 7 o'clock bedtime - and the lady at front desk had the best news for us after such a long day of travel: we had been upgraded to a suite! I was so happy, I could have kissed her! They had a suite after all but it is not bookable online as sometimes they rent it out long term. The suite had two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a bathroom. It was basic but just what we needed as we could put Lennon to sleep in our room and unwind in the room my mom and sister were sharing. We were very excited about this and it just made our day. We slept VERY well and when we awoke the next morning: time to explore LA!
Our first full day included a stop to the airport to pick up my sister (she took a different flight due to work obligations). Since the airport was close to the coast, we headed to Venice Beach for a stroll and some people watching. I don't find Venice Beach to be anything that spectacular but it seems like a must do when in LA. I would have loved to rent a bike and go for a bike ride but we weren't in a situation to do that yet. We watched some street performers, enjoyed the blue skies and palm trees and browsed the plethora of tourist shops.
Next up was the "nearby" (as far as LA is concerned) Santa Monica. We always enjoy our visits to Santa Monica. We had intentions of walking the pier but we spent a lot of time eating a late lunch by which point our parking was about to expire so all our time was spent on the Third Street Promenade with the intention of returning to Santa Monica later in the week for that mandatory walk on the pier. We made a quick stop to Diddy Riese for some delectable cookies and ice cream sandwiches on the way home and then we called it a night. Diddy Riese is definitely worth the visit, even if its not anywhere nearby!
The next day was spent at Universal Studios, but that deserves its own blog post (coming soon).
Our third full day was spent at The Farmers Market and The Grove shopping centre followed by a drive around Beverley Hills to gawk at the beautiful homes.
Day 4 - our last full day in LA - was spent touring cemeteries where some notable Hollywood stars are laid to rest. The cemeteries were beautiful and a real contrast from the hustle and bustle of LA. We first stopped at Hollywood Forever cemetery as it was very close to our hotel. The information center in the cemetery sells maps showing who is buried where. There are a LOT of Hollywood greats buried here, many from before our time but there were some very recent burial such as Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mickey Rooney and even a tribute to Toto, the dog from the "Wizard of Oz".
We then headed to Forest Lawn Memorial Park which is massive in comparison to Hollywood Forever. There is no map indicating who is buried where but we followed a very detailed "tour" from Seeing Stars to see some resting places. The one that we were most interested in seeing was Michael Jackson's but he is buried in a highly secured area in a part of a the Great Mausoleum that is not open to the public. So we had to settle for being in the same building as him. The cemeteries, as morbid as some may think them to be, were actually a nice change from the go go go of LA and they really were beautiful!
Following the two cemeteries, we headed back to Santa Monica for a feast at the Cheesecake Factory, a walk on the pier, and a return to Cheesecake Factory to get some cheesecake to go. Yes, out of all the places we could have dined at in LA, we chose the Cheesecake Factory. We are big fans and we don't have CF in Canada so for us it was a must! Lennon also needed his first Cheesecake Factory experience! We think he enjoyed it, don't you?
Santa Monica pier is somewhere we have been every time we have traveled to LA. Every trip has included the same photo ops: the Bubba Gump/Forrest Gump bench, the Route 66 sign, the pier, the welcome sign, the ferris wheel, amongst others. I recommend it for some good 'ol Americana fun, people watching, a scenic stroll and a nice sunset!
Our last official day, we had a flight back home at 8pm so this allowed for one last stop (it would have allowed for many more if we didn't have a baby as everything takes soooo much longer but no complaints)! We headed to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We have been to the Walk of Fame every previous trip as well and weren't that interested in returning this time but there was one star we had to visit, and we did so on our way to the airport for a little photo shoot (of which the photos have not been edited or cropped).
We just couldn't resist! We also got some family photos in while we were at it:
It seems to be that Ringo is Lennon's fave!
And that was our last stop before heading to the airport to fly back home! It was a fun 5ish days. It took forever to get going in the mornings (very rarely did we leave the hotel before 11am) but once we got going, we had a lot of fun exploring LA. Huge thanks to Yiayia and Auntie Melina for all their help! It really made things so much easier.
If I could give any tips for a first trip with baby, it would be to go somewhere you have been before, are familiar with, or somewhere that doesn't involve a lot of planning or running around to see lots of attractions and to go somewhere where there may be relatives (or invite along a family member or friend)...the extra hands, if you can get them, make a huge difference, especially if you plan on doing lots of excursions and running around. Of course, this is just from my own experience, but if you get overwhelmed with too much family or extra hands, there are trips that are easier than others (I imagine an all inclusive resort would be amazing as a first trip!)
Now to see how we get on in Europe! Check back soon for our day at Universal Studios and to see how we get on in Europe!
The hubby and I definitely have a travel bug and have traveled extensively. I am always browsing the internet to look for deals to wherever and prior to having a baby, I would often book trips spontaneously, sometimes without even getting Perry's approval ("oh hi hunny, how was your day? Guess what? I booked us a trip to Miami to see Paul McCartney"). I have not been so inclined to be spontaneous like this with a baby but, earlier this year, when I received an email notifying me of a $65 return flight (all in) to Los Angeles from Vancouver, I could not pass this up! We want our offspring to be worldly and well traveled and this would be a good start! We also have a long journey to Europe booked for the end of this month and I thought this would make great practice! The $65 deal was actually a mistake fare that was luckily honored by the airline (Delta partnered withWestJet), even though I am pretty sure they do not make money on this as the base fare was $0 and the taxes and airport fees were $65. Thanks Delta and WestJet! We got my mom and sister on board (literally and figuratively) and then all we had to do was wait for April, pack and hop on a plane! Oh, if only it was so simple with a baby!
I sought the advice from various moms that had flown with a baby and also browsed various mommy groups on social media for tips on how to have a successful flight and I felt pretty prepared and relaxed about the idea. I had read and reviewed the airline's policies and guidelines on traveling with an infant and I had made a "to-do" and "to-pack" list months before and added to it as I remembered things I would need. I had set aside Lennon's clothes suitable for the warm California weather months in advance and did the same with Perry's and I's closer to our departure date. The packing was a lot easier than expected. If anything, the thing I was most worried about was the plane ride and making sure I had everything necessary for every possible situation. It helped to remind myself that Lennon can easily be calmed by nursing him but I still packed a whole lot of extras, just in case: extra clothes in case of a poop explosion, a couple of blankets in case he was cold, rattles, books and other toys, Baby Banz noise cancellation headphones, the Ergobaby carrier, soothers and so on. The days of carrying on a book, an iPod and some snacks were seemingly over!
Everything was packed the night before our flight except for the toiletries we needed to use in the morning. Just before Lennon's bedtime, we were changing the sheet on his crib while he played on our bed (about two feet from the crib) with some toys...I think you can see where this is going...He did a double roll and unfortunately rolled off the bed. This was his first big "bonk" and we of course felt terrible and like the worst parents in the world. A little nursing went a long way and he was calmed down in no time. We weren't too concerned as he had calmed down and didn't have any serious symptoms but I felt nervous about flying and to a different country, just in case there was anything serious that we didn't notice. So the next morning, our doctor had an available appointment and we luckily had time to visit as our flight wasn't until 4pm. Prior to the doctor's appointment, we decided to head to the laundromat to wash the cloth diapers so that they wouldn't sit in the diaper pail for another 5 days. We then saw the doctor, who wasn't concerned at all and confirmed that Lennon was fine (and reassured us that we weren't terrible parents). My sister was on an outbound flight the next day but we had to go pick my mom up in Richmond (about 20 minutes away). We made a stop to Whole Foods to pick up some non-toxic baby sunscreen and to London Drugs to pick up a lens cap for my camera (seriously, Canon needs to start having strings attached to their lens caps), and THEN once we picked my mom up, we stopped to exchange some money in order to avoid the terrible rates and fees that are usually associated with currency exchanges at airports. We had done well up til this point but on the short drive to the airport, Lennon started to get fussy and things started to get a bit hectic!
We were hoping to have three hours at the airport but only had about 2.5. Perry dropped us off along the curb of US departures with all our baggage...and boy did we have a lot of baggage! He then went to park the car and met us at the check in counter. We had a LOT of stuff: car seat, stroller, breast pump, diaper bag, play pen (for Lennon to sleep in as our hotel didn't have a crib), a carry on backpack for Perry, 2 suitcases to check in...all for a 5 night journey! We were going to leave the car seat in Vancouver and rent one from the car rental company in LA as we were aware that with WestJet, we could check in two baby items at no cost and we already had a stroller and playpen. After enquiring with the extremely helpful Greg at the Westjet self check in kiosks , he assured us that there wouldn't be a charge as we were bringing the stroller to the gate with us and therefore it is considered a "gate check", which I guess is different than checking it in at check-in! We were then helped by Gavin who weighed our suitcases and checked to make sure we had the right amount of baggage but then he brought to our attention that Perry, being a British citizen, requires an electronic visa waiver for the states but his had expired and he needed to apply for a new one! This added about 15 minutes to our check in process but it had to be done. Finally, the check in was complete and we were very pleased with our first experience with WestJet! Now we had to pass through security and board the plane, right? I wish!
Vancouver International Airport is a very nice looking and clean airport. It has been voted one of the top airports in the world on multiple occasions but the one thing I do not like about it is the number of steps involved when flying to the U S of A. You can't simply drop your luggage off when you check in, you need to take the luggage to a drop off area which is down the hall from the check in counter. You then need to go through the security checkpoint. Lennon was starting to get fussy again at this point and I was getting a bit stressed because of the time and because there seemed to be a long line for the security clearance. One of the security officers noticed that he was getting fussy and luckily allowed us to enter the priority line. This helped a great deal, but what didn't help is that both Perry AND Lennon had been selected randomly for in depth screening. This doesn't usually take a lot of extra time but this added step did add to the already lengthy process of reaching our gate! I had to sit down for a moment as I felt I was going to have a panic attack and poor Lennon could sense that this was a stressful situation so I whipped out the food source and nursed him before continuing to yet another step...
When traveling to the United States via YVR, you clear customs in Vancouver, not your final destination. This is great because when you arrive at your destination in the states, you only need to pick up your baggage (if you have anything checked in) and be on your way. However, it is a step that can easily make things stressful, especially when traveling with young ones and just want to get to your gate (or head to the nearest lounge to chug a glass of wine). Luckily it went quicker than it used to as they now have automated machines to speed up the process (an aside: I used to work at the airport) but it just adds to the already lengthy process when flying to the United States from YVR.
So we had to check in, then take our luggage to the drop off area, then clear security, then clear customs. The one regret I have is that we didn't have Lennon in the carrier. I had the carrier with me but I assumed that Lennon would need to be seen for both the security and customs clearances so we just had him out and took turns holding him. I then saw some other parents carrying their babies and not needing to take them out. I now know for next time that we can carry him (although different airports may have different rules). This will makes things so much easier and also allow him to have a nap (as his afternoon nap was skipped due to the check in process).
We FINALLY got to our gate and our fellow passengers were already being checked in. I needed to settle down so we hurried over to a nearby wine bar and downed a glass of wine (I just couldn't wait until the beverage service on board). Oh yeah and we also changed Lennon's diaper. It was advised by many parents to change the diaper before boarding the plane (especially if a short flight) as the change tables in the airplane bathrooms are tiny (you can imagine how tiny when thinking of how small airplane bathrooms are) and flight attendants do not allow you to change a diaper on the seats or floor due to hygiene reasons.
I have already written so much about baby's first flight...and I haven't even gotten to the part where we were on the plane! This says a lot! We finally got to the gate...the last party to arrive - oops! But this meant less time spent on the plane! We got into our seats and I attempted to nurse Lennon during the take off which was recommended by most if not all moms I spoke to as it helps with the change in cabin pressure. I succeeded somewhat but he was just too curious, excited and distracted by this new environment to want to nurse. He just wanted to keep peeking out to look around and be social with the other passengers (as you can see in the photos below).
Luckily his ears weren't affected by the change in air pressure and this could have been due to the Baby Banz headphones we packed. On our return flight, we didn't have the headphones on him after take off but nearing the end of the flight, he made a few cries while sleeping in my arms and when I noticed my ears pop, I realized we were beginning to descend and that the cabin pressure was changing so we popped the headphones on and he didn't get upset again after that. Who knows if it's the headphones or not that helped but they do look darn adorable - if you can get them and keep them on your little ones that is!
He eventually had a nap in the carrier and the rest of the time was spent having cuddles with yiayia (who was a huge help) and playing peekaboo with other passengers.
Luckily it was only a 3 hour flight and it went quickly. All in all, we had a great experience with his first flight but the flight was the relaxing part..it would have been even more relaxing if we could have skipped all the steps at the airport! Now we know for next time to allow lots of extra time (as we did for the return flight which went very smoothly) and to not do any running around beforehand (like exchanging money, shopping, packing etc). Those would be my two big tips....and another two big tips: babywearing makes things much easier...and so does bringing a grandma, auntie or other relative or friend along if it is feasible. You can never have too many hands!
We are hoping for a smooth journey to Europe but Lennon will probably be crawling by then...and the flight is more than 3 times longer than the one to LA so it might be a whole new ball game....and Yiayia won't be there to help us this time! We can do it, right?! Wish us luck and do comment below if you have anymore tips for flying with a baby!
Here is a gallery of some more photos from Lennon's first flight (and some from the second too). You can click on the photos for a description. I took a lot of photos, but what can I say? This was a total Proud Mommy Moment (and I'm a total momarazzi anyways)!
If you're heading anywhere near Abbotsford, British Columbia this month, the Abbotsford Tulip Festival is definitely worth the stop! Even making the special trip out there from the lower mainland or elsewhere is worth it. Pack a picnic and don't forget to bring a camera or phone with LOTS of memory and battery power! In the two hours we were there, snap happy me managed to capture over 500 photos. Today, I am sharing my favorites from this magical and vibrant place.
Last year, the hubby (and baby bump) and I attended the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in the Mount Vernon area of Washington state and I fell in love with the bright and cheerful setting that tulip fields provide. I was so happy to hear of one that is much closer to Vancouver and doesn't involve a border crossing. It felt very special to return to a tulip festival this year with our offspring. Although it is much smaller in scale compared to Skagit Valley, it is still spectacular to see so many beautiful colors and different varieties of tulips.
There are some rows here and there that aren't quite yet in bloom but that didn't stop the fields from looking as vibrant and brilliant as they did. You can check the Field Report on the festival's website if you are concerned before going.
We went on a Monday as to avoid the weekend crowds and we noticed there were no food or drink vendors (luckily, we had packed a picnic). If you are hoping to get a coffee or food while you are there during the week, it is best to pack a picnic or there are many options for food nearby that you can head to before or after your visit to the tulip fields. There is a large covered area with picnic tables that you can use should you decide to bring food or dine from a food truck on the weekend.
There is a play area for little ones near the entrance. Lennon is too small to have enjoyed these activities but I did see toddlers and older children having a great time with lawn games and duck races! The terrain is not great for a rickety stroller (like an umbrella stroller) or wheelchair but it is manageable once you get onto the field's path and off the gravel parking lot.
It is a great place to take photos. Photographers can opt in for a special admission that gives you entry one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset to capture the beauty of the fields. We noticed a couple was having their engagement photos taken there as well. Great idea!
The festival runs until May 1st and is open daily from 9am-6pm (with adjusted hours for season's pass holders and photographers) but be sure to check the Field Report to avoid disappointment should tulip season be ending early (like it did at Skagit Valley last year). It is adjacent to Highway 1 and just off exit 95. Entry is $5 per person 2 years old and over and if you visit on the weekends, there is an additional $5 charge for vehicles. You can pre-purchase your tickets online. Cash, Debit and Credit Cards are accepted on premises which is very convenient! You can pick your own tulips at the U-Pick field for 75 cents a stem or they sell pre picked bunches of 10 for $5 a bunch (buy 4 and get a 5th free). See more details on the official Abbotsford Tulip Festival's website!
Here is a gallery of my family's excursion (click on photo and then scroll left or right to view the gallery)! Look at all the colors! It doesn't get more picturesque than this! Enjoy!
Baby's First Getaway: Why Harrison Hot Springs is a Great Choice for your First Postpartum Trip
Perry and I are avid travelers. Prior to having a baby, every opportunity we got, we would be packing the car and getting out of the city. Whenever we had at least two days off in a row together, rather than staying at home, the first thing we would consider is where to escape to and book a last minute getaway. Seattle, Whistler, Portland, the Okanagan, Oregon Coast, Vancouver Island....living on the West Coast provides plenty of opportunities for beautiful road trips and fun getaways and we were taking full advantage of this. Then came Lennon...and along with Lennon comes a year of mat leave. This has allowed for plenty of time together but instead of using this opportunity to escape from the city each time Perry has 2+ days off in a row, we have felt overwhelmed by the daunting task of loading a car full of oversized and necessary baby gear and nervous about disrupting baby's precious sleep schedule. We have just felt that it would be much easier to stay put. But having a serious case of the travel bug, we have serious itchy feet. It is also one of our priorities to travel as a family and raise our kids to be open minded and worldly so we need to get comfortable with the idea of traveling with a baby. We have a nearly 5 week trip planned to Europe for next summer but we feel like we need practice to get us ready for this and an opportunity came just this week. It was Perry's birthday and he had 3 days off in a row so we figured we should celebrate by going away on our first family trip. When we were trying to decide where to go, Harrison Hot Springs became an obvious choice and we couldn't have been happier with choosing this destination as our first getaway with Lennon. Here are the main reasons why we were so happy with our decision and why we highly recommend Harrison Hot Springs as an ideal getaway for those with little ones:
It is relatively a short distance away from Metro Vancouver
This is a bonus on so many levels. From Metro Vancouver, Harrison Hot Springs should take no longer than 2 hours to drive to. Depending on traffic and the route you take, you could get there in an hour and a half from downtown Vancouver, less from places like Surrey and Maple Ridge. This means that you can take your time loading the car in the morning and getting ready to go and perhaps even enjoy a nice cuppa! You don't need to rush as hotel check ins are usually not until 3 or 4 anyways and even if you want to stop for lunch along the way, or head to Harrison earlier than check in to explore, you still don't need to leave at the crack of dawn. Another bonus to Harrison being a short distance from home is that you may not need to make any stops along the way. If baby has a routinely long nap in the morning, you can strap them in the car seat and allow them to nap in the car on the way there which means you don't need to stop for a feed or diaper change. Even if they don't nap, if you feed and change right before getting in the car, you may be able to do the journey without stopping! Like I said, the short distance is a bonus on many levels! However, if you do want to stop and check out what the Fraser Valley has to offer along the way, I highly recommend checking out Circle Farm Tours for suggestions of places to visit, eat, shop and so on.
The trip doesn't "break the bank"
Every time that we have overnighted in Harrison, it has been during a weekend and a last minute decision and the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa, which most visitors lodge at, has always been fully booked. This time, we were going on a Monday during low season and, luckily, there were rooms available, and for a great price. Bonus! If you go during the week, the rates are usually cheaper AND you are more likely to have an early check in. We have a BCAA membership which provides a 10% discount on just the room rate (not package deals) so we ended up getting the room for just over $100 - now that is value for money. There are lots of different types of rooms to suit different needs and different budgets. We just went with the basic double room in the Main Hotel as we were there primarily for the use of the hot springs. Yes it was a bit dated and the room was a bit small and it didn't have a view or air conditioning but it worked for us and it was still clean and cozy and included entry to the pools and free wifi among other things. It's not like we need AC in December anyways. It was only $20 more to have a family suite. While we contemplated opting for this room to allow Lennon to sleep in one room while we Netflix and Chilled (the married couple version) in the other, we thought we should practice Netflix and Chilling (remember - the married couple version) while Lennon sleeps in the same room because family suites may not always be an option where we travel to in the future. But it is great to know that they have well priced family suites in case you want to bring along a grandma and/or grandpa (ahemBABYSITTERahem) or have a separate room for your kids to sleep in.
They do have newer, more modern rooms which are larger, with views, air conditioning, balconies and even those are well priced compared to other resort hotels. The hotel allows you to use the pools prior to check in (from 1pm) and after checkout (until 1pm) which adds to the value for money. The hotel parking is $6 if you self park or $12 for valet parking which, again, is well priced for a resort hotel. If you want to park for free, there are spots along Esplanade Avenue which is really just steps away from the hotel.
Another money saving bonus is that the gas is cheaper in that part of BC than it is in Vancouver. There are also a variety of other budget friendly accommodations in Harrison that range from around $40 and up but having the access to the hot spring pools and the spa ambience that the resort provides really does make it a relaxing trip and worth the extra money spent which brings me to my next point...
It really is relaxing!
Our son LOVES being in the water. We love taking him swimming and seeing how he reacts when in the water but taking him swimming is also a big production and exhausting. Swimming takes a lot of energy out of Lennon so we only go in the water for maximum 15 minutes and we spend much more time in the change room than we do in the water. We not only need to get him dried up and ready afterwards but Perry and I need to take turns in the shower while the other cares for Lennon and then get ourselves ready and doing so in a cold change room with a lack of space or a soaking wet bench to put our dry clothes and everything we brought along with us on sometimes takes the fun out of it and makes it discouraging to keep going. The great thing about the resort is the ease it provides when taking a baby or young child swimming. You can bring a stroller down to the pool so when you get out, you can bundle babe up and put him/her in the stroller and take them up to the warm room to get them dried up and dressed (and the parents aren't freezing their butts off in the meantime). The toiletries are already in the shower, you don't have to place your stuff on a soaking wet bench, there is plenty of space to move around and get ready in. It is just a whole lot easier returning to your room to get ready rather than going to the community center and having to get yourself and a baby ready in a change room. It makes the experience more relaxing and enjoyable. Its also relaxing cause, you're in a resort - and there are bath robes waiting for you in your room upon check in! The spa ambience of the resort adds to the relaxation. While we were walking around the lobby, which has a large fireplace surrounded by big comfy couches where guests were lounging, reading and relaxing, I heard one man say that he felt like he was on a cruise. To top it off, you're at a hotel with hot pools. It's almost like going in a hot tub except you can take your baby in with you! Bonus! And for me personally, there is something relaxing about being in an outdoor hot springs pool when it is cold and raining out and surrounded by nature.
Another reason that visiting Harrison Hot Springs is relaxing is because it is such a small and quiet town that you don't have to worry about going out and sightseeing. You can spend a majority of the day relaxing in the hotel without feeling like you have missed out on the sights or attractions. The village has basically two small roads with restaurants and shops and in the slow season, not all of them are open. You only really need to leave the hotel to go for a walk along the lake or to eat at a restaurant other than the ones at the resort. You don't need much time to do that so you can relax in the hotel without feeling like you are missing out on anything as the hotel also has everything you need. You can check out the lake and other nearby places on your way in and/or out of the village if you so wish.
The hotel is also really welcoming of families. Not only do they provide family rooms and have cribs for guest use, but the resort has an adult pool and a family pool. You can relax knowing that you won't have adults frowning upon your kids for being kids in the pool. If someone doesn't want to be around kids, they will use the adult pool. The family pool was actually much quieter and less busy than the adult pool when we were there anyways.
I also need to mention that we received great service from all the staff we interacted with during our visit. Some notable moments of the great service: The lady that checked us in comped our parking fee for Perry's birthday, the bellhop was extremely helpful in carrying our luggage to our room and explaining the best ways to get to the pool with the stroller, Perry had a box of chocolates waiting for him in the room, and, when we spilled some red wine on the bed, housekeeping was up immediately to change the sheets without a fuss. There was also one kind lady that offered to take some photos for us three all together (it is not easy to take a selfie with a DSLR). The great service really added to the experience.
Another way you can make this relaxing is to take the scenic route along Lougheed Highway which turns into Highway 7 and avoid Highway 1. It may add about 20 minutes to the journey but it is worth it as it is much more interesting and scenic than HIghway 1 with lots of opportunities to stop for lunch (Mission Springs Brewing Company is a great one).
Harrison Village does hold a special place in my husband's and I's hearts. The last time we visited Harrison prior to this recent trip was in February. I was 11 weeks pregnant and just that week I had gone to visit the doctor for a check up. She was unable to hear the baby's heartbeat so she scheduled an ultrasound to make sure everything was okay. The two days that we had to wait for the ultrasound really were two of the hardest days we have ever experienced. It was a really emotional time thinking that we may have lost our baby and I felt that we had to book a night out of the city no matter if it was good news or bad just to escape everything. The ultrasound was scheduled for Saturday morning and much to our surprise, the news ended up being the best we could have hoped for and the technician told us that the reason the doctor couldn't hear the heartbeat is because the baby was moving around like nobody's business and also that 11 weeks is still early to pick up a heartbeat using the doppler. To say that we were overjoyed is an understatement. We were definitely ecstatic and following the scan, we went to Harrison for the night. This place is associated with positive memories in our hearts and we even contemplated naming our son Harrison for this reason (and also because of George Harrison...clearly we love the Beatles).
Personal emotions aside, we could not have had a smoother first trip with sweet little Lennon and I feel confident when recommending Harrison Hot Springs as a first getaway for new families - or for anyone really! We are already planning our return! Check out the gallery below for a glimpse of our first getaway post partum (click on the images for captions).
What other places would you reccomend traveling to with a baby?
Portland, Oregon: My Top Picks
Portland City Grill:
This restaurant on the 30th floor of the US Bank Tower has a fantastic view and a fantastic happy hour. You’d think that dining in the tallest building in Portland, with panoramic views, would not come cheap but if you visit during happy hour, you will be offered $5 appies, $5 beers, $26 bottles of wine and even $6 cocktails (which are definitely strong). The great thing about happy hour in Portland is that it is usually offered twice a day between 3-6pm and again from 9pm until close (but this varies) so it is great to visit Portland City Grill after 9pm and take advantage of the happy hour and the views at night (unless of course its the time of year when it gets dark at ridiculous o'clock, then the 3-6pm happy hour would be great for sunset)! I have never visited during the day but apparently there are great views of the Cascade Mountains!
Again, another establishment that we have visited just for their happy hour. They have a great selection of beer and cider and I love the design of the building (but then again, I love any building with exposed brick). We have never eaten here (yet) but the Gorgonzola Waffle Fries seem to be a hit amongst the patrons as we always see them being delivered to tables.
No trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Powell’s Books. This really does feel like a “City of Books”, occupying multiple floors of an entire city block and offering new, used and out of print books. You could spend hours here and it is not often that you walk away without purchasing anything. They even have a café and gift shop!
Salt and Straw Ice Cream:
This place is really a gem and I always go on and on and on about it each time we visit and to everyone that asks what they should visit in Portland. Not only is the customer service exceptional but when you try their ice cream, you will understand why the line up to order extends outside and around the corner of the building. They have some incredibly unique flavors and they are constantly experimenting with ingredients that are in season. When we took my English brother in law here, who is a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy and not usually interested in experimental flavors, he was certain he was not going to like anything. But boy did we prove him wrong. He was amazed. The great thing is they let you sample as many of the flavors as you like and with a menu that includes bizarre combinations such as Brown Ale and Bacon, Salted Caramel Thanksgiving Turkey, and Sea Urchin Meringue, it may be safe to try a few flavors out beforehand (or not, if you are the adventurous kind). Their ice cream is so fresh that most combinations are likely to please the palate! A few of my favorites are the Pear and Blue Cheese, Honey Balsamic Strawberry with Black Pepper and Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons. You do not want to skip this place when you visit Portland. Trust me on this one!
One of the, if not THE biggest craft brewery in Oregon. Amazing selection of beer and the food is amazing too. They also have some very pretty growlers if you’re looking for a souvenir. Always a great atmosphere here.
Like Powell’s Books, no trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Voodoo Doughnut. That is, if you feel like waiting in line. If you get there at the right time, you can usually walk right in without having to wait. Why is everyone fascinated by this joint and prepared to wait in line? I guess its the novelty of it and the out of the ordinary doughnut flavors they create using ingredients such as Oreo cookies, Fruit Loops cereal, Bacon and so on. The one thing I dislike about this place is that they only take cash but I guess this is understandable considering they usually have a lineup and it would not move as quickly if they had to process card payments. Being open 24 hours makes up for it though!
10 Barrel Brewing Company:
Okay so I have not actually visited the Portland location of this brewery because it was not opened yet when we were last there. However, we did visit the Boise, Idaho location and were so impressed with their beer and food items that I can’t imagine the Portland location would be much different. I also fell in love with their Cucumber Crush beer and had never had anything like that so this brewery gets bonus points!
The food truck scene in Portland is pretty incredible and you will find trucks of every cuisine imaginable all over the city. There are even parking lots that occupy only food trucks. Taqueria Villanueva is actually a stand alone food truck that is parked at the corner of SW 3rd Ave and SW Oak St and offers some amazing (and not to mention MONSTROUS portioned) Mexican food for next to nothing. I mean their tacos are only $1.50 and giant burritos around $5 or less! I must admit that I have no self control when I visit this truck, ordering multiple items as I want it all and can’t pick just one. This usually means that I have to return to the hotel room and lie flat for a while, or just unbutton my pants so as to not be in pain. If you want to try out some food trucks in PDX, make sure to add this one to your list! Portlandians also seem to love this truck as it has great ratings on Yelp!
Bailey’s Tap Room:
This tap room was introduced to us by a friend that lives in Portland and we had a really great time when we visited. It has a really great vibe and we loved the concept of it. It features a real time screen that shows what beers they have on tap and how full the kegs are as well as board games to keep you entertained. It’s definitely a good time! Only thing is they don't serve food but they have resolved this by allowing outside food to be devoured in their establishment and there is a conveniently located Mexican joint next door that is apparently very tasty.
About 30 minutes outside of Portland, this waterfall makes for a nice and short getaway from the city. There are actually a number of waterfalls all in the same area as Multnomah Falls and you can hike between a lot of them. When we visited, Benson Bridge, which is a bridge that you can walk to about halfway up the falls (and one of the most photographed landmarks in Oregon), had faced some damage after a boulder smashed a part of it, but the bridge has since reopened and offers a great photo op of the falls! The bridge allows you to cross the width of the waterfall and to continue on to further viewpoints. We did not get to enjoy anything on or past the bridge because it was being repaired but if anyone has hiked to the top, I would love to hear about your experience!
Lodekka – Double Decker Dress Shop:
So we totally stumbled upon this “dress shop” by accident. On our first visit to Portland, we were meeting up with a friend for brunch in a trendy area that I don’t remember seeing any tourists in. I saw this cool looking double decker bus and discovered it to be none other than a vintage shop! That’s right – a vintage shop in a double decker bus! I loved the novelty of it and was pretty certain I would not find anything for myself as I never have luck in vintage shops due to items not fitting me but I still wanted to explore. This shop was much smaller as well seeing as it is in a bus so I was VERY certain that I would not find anything. I wanted to just look as I loved the unique idea of a business in a double decker bus. There were some great items for sale and surprisingly, I walked out with not just one, but TWO items that fit me: A Michael Jackson-esque coat and some shoes that remind me of a witch. I was really excited about this and Lodekka has since become one of my favorite shops in Portland.
So there you have it folks, a few of my favorite things to do and see in Portland. This list does not even come close to scratching the surface when it comes to what to do and see in the city. Writing about Portland sure makes me want to hop in the car and road trip down ASAP (but not having a car or license makes that a bit difficult)! This list will expand with each visit to the City of Roses. In the meantime, I would love to hear about your favorite things to do and see in PDX. What should I visit next time I'm there?!
I leave you with some photos of the hubby and I contributing to keeping Portland weird. Enjoy!
We decided to skip the capital of Laos, Vientiane, as we had not heard great things about it. The plan was to go straight from Veng Vieng to Hanoi, Vietnam. Now, upon researching how to get there, we came across numerous blogs and articles online that have dubbed this trip as "the journey from hell" for various reasons that included machete attacks, dodgy cargo and unsafe driving. This didn't deter us as it was the cheapest way to get there by far and we thought we could have some stories to tell by the end of it.
So here we were thinking that we were skipping Vientiane. The journey began by being shuttled on a mini van through the winding village roads of stilt houses made of woven bamboo from Vang Vieng to none other than Vientiane. It was a nice scenic way to see the village life of Laos. The mini van dropped us off at the bus station in the capital where we awaited about an hour for the bus to Hanoi. There were numerous busses parked in the station and we were trying to guess which one we would go on...low and behold, when the bus arrived, it wasn't even a bus, but a tuk tuk which all the backpackers were piled into. We had no idea what was going on but we followed the herd. The tuk tuk was rammed and Perry and I were last to get on, with no room left for us to sit, we stood on the external back step directly above the rear bumper of the tuk tuk and hung on for dear life as the driver sped through Vientiane to get us to where we had no clue.
Driving through Vientiane, trying not to fall off the tuk tuk, we were so glad we were not actually staying here. It was filthy with dirt flying everywhere and just really polluted. There didn't seem to be anything worth visiting. We must have been driving for at least half an hour (which felt like an eternity hanging off the back of the tuk tuk) when we arrived at another massive bus station and were directed to a bus. We tried to get on so we could get good seats before the rest of the backpackers got there (we were first off the tuk tuk so first to reach the bus) but there seemed to be some chaos ensuing what with chickens in cages in the luggage compartments and nobody speaking English. They wouldn't let us on for some reason and once everybody arrived there, they made us exchange our tickets for little pieces of scrap paper. They finally began letting us on but gave us no choice as to where we could sit. They shuffled all of the backpackers to the back of the bus near the toilets and pointed to the seat they wanted us to sit in.
I need to mention that this was a sleeper bus, the first of its kind that we had encountered. The seats are almost completely reclined and the rows have 1 to 3 beds neighboring each other (some attached). There are two levels: top and bottom. The top is a bit more spacious and the bottom a bit more claustrophobic: both equally narrow with a little cubby hole that you place your fit in and no space to put backpacks or hand luggage.
So we were all pushed to the back and made to sit in seats they allocated. Luckily, Perry and I both scored top bunks. Unluckily for others, they had no choice but to squeeze into the bottom, even though there were plenty of empty spaces in the front section, which were reserved for the locals and which allowed them to spread out and relax. A couple of the backpackers confronted the staff member that was directing us to the back and demanded a top seat as there were plenty near the front to which the bus staff replied with a very childish and comical "NO"! I wish I got it on video. All that was missing was a stamping of his feet on the floor! It was very entertaining to watch as one of the backpackers called him an asshole to which the staff member had no clue what he was saying. We were all quite shocked though as to how they had treated all the foreigners and shoved us to the back.
We tried to settle into our "beds". As the bus took off for what was scheduled to be a very long journey, the TV screens turned on and the speakers started blaring some loud dance music. And when I say loud, I mean like nightclub loud. We were all just looking at each other and laughing at first but after a while we were just annoyed and confused as to why it was so necessary to have the music so loud. We figured it was either to annoy us backpackers or to keep the driver awake. Instead of showing a TV show or movie, the screens were showing something called "Beauty Leg" which was just a bunch of lingerie models strutting the catwalk. We thought maybe this was also to keep the driver awake. Eventually the music on the loudspeakers and the "Beauty Leg" turned off and the music videos went on: Gangnam Style and other K-pop favorites. It did have us giggling and I did find some songs to add to my iPod. I forgot to mention that the bus had some crazy neon/disco lights as well which added to the bizarreness of the whole experience.
At 2am, after sleeping on an off on the swaying bus, we arrived at the Laos/Vietnam border (one of them anyway)…we arrived at 2am, and it didn’t open til 6am. We had prepared ourselves for this as we knew this would happen from the research we had done. Many complained why wouldn’t we just depart 4 hours later rather than stay put for 4 hours. We figured it was a chance for the driver to sleep…and also for us to sleep because it is not easy to sleep on a moving sleeper bus with the swaying and often fast speeds that make you feel like you will fall off the top bed. We tried to get some sleep but with the bus parked and engine off, this meant no air conditioning so it was just too stuffy to sleep comfortably (in an already uncomfortable environment). The border was due to open at 6am. We stood waiting and around 7am, the border opened. Our group from our bus were the first in line but that didn’t seem to matter as hoards of bus “leaders” would come up and shove a stack of 20-30 passports through the border official’s little window. This got me furious and after a couple of “leaders” doing this and the official not seem to care that we were stood directly in front of him, I blocked others from cutting in and if they did stick their stack of passports through the window, I would reach in, grab them and give them back to them and, with bulging eyes, say “NO, WAIT YOUR TURN”. Yeah that’s right! Don’t mess with me! I should have really been a bit more careful seeing as I don’t know these people and what they are capable of doing and seeing as I was at a border, but the whole process was just ridiculous.
After what seemed like forever, we got our passports back and exited Laos. Now all we had to do was cross into Vietnam! We had to go by foot as the buses had to be searched and so on. So when we exited Laos, we walked…and walked…and walked…and walked and finally after about 20 minutes (with heavy backpacks and walking uphill, this seemed much longer), we reached the Vietnam border. Now we just had to hand over our passports and enter…but of course, those damn bus “leaders” were back with their stacks of passports and this time, bills stuck inside each one to bribe the border officer with. Not again! I did get furious at one point but luckily the officer already had our passports so there was nothing much we could do. Just wait and wait and wait. We finally all got our passports back and then we had to wait for the bus to return. This seemed to take ages as well! Eventually it arrived and eventually we were able to board and continue on to Hanoi. The entire border crossing process took 3 hours! It was quite ridiculous but it was nice to get some “fresh” air.
We still had many hours to go until we reached Hanoi. It was about 10am once the border crossing process was complete. Perry and I had no Vietnamese currency so we couldn’t buy food. We had packed a bunch of snacks that we bought in Laos but really wanted something more substantial. We had to just try and sleep to keep our minds off the hunger. At around 7pm we reached Hanoi - about 30 hours after starting the journey in Veng Vieng. Not going to lie, we did want to scream by the end of it, but it was time to explore Vietnam and most importantly: EAT!
I don’t know if I would recommend this journey to others. Yes it is a big money saver but also a time waster and maybe more hassle than it is worth. If you book a flight in advance, you can get a really good deal but if you would rather go the bus route, at least you will have some stories to tell by the end of it!
A Bit of Thailand and Laos
The moment we touched down in Bangkok, it was like a breath of fresh air. Seeing a nice clean airport with clean toilets was just a huge relief from the uncleanliness that was Kolkata airport. And just a huge relief from the toilet situation in India in general.
We were meant to couchsurf in Bangkok but unfortunately we were let down and ended up staying in a hostel instead. We had a private room and it was super modern and clean, and most importantly air conditioned because the bottom line is: Bangkok felt like a sauna!
We did not want to venture far because it was just uncomfortably hot so our short time in Bangkok consisted of shopping, eating, shopping, eating, more shopping and more eating (we are returning in a couple of weeks so will get to see more). The malls are all air conditioned and the items for sale are so cute and relatively cheap and the food is just so cheap and tasty! And by food, I mean the street food (which is primarily street meat). They seem to be quite inventive with some of the street food and the way they cook the food as well. We really fell in love with the fruit stands. They are everywhere and you select what fruit you want and they chop it up for you and prepare it to consume immediately. Very refreshing and very filling! They serve it with a packet of...well we haven't completely figured out what it is, but it tastes like sugar mixed with salt and the locals dip their fruit in it. We aren't huge fans of that though!
The Thais are super obsessed with the royalty. And apparently you can even be imprisoned for making any insulting remarks against the royal family. In fact, they are so obsessed that they play the national anthem prior to movies at the cinema in which you have to stand up for. One day, we went on the sky train and were fidgeting around with money trying to find the correct change for our fare when we suddenly looked up and everyone was frozen in their place and staring at us. It felt like a flash mob but then when we heard the music, we put the two together and realized they were playing the national anthem and people had stopped dead in their tracks. It was the weirdest thing. There are also photos of the royal family enlarged and placed all over the city. The king is in poor health and in the hospital at the moment. Next in line is his son but apparently the Thais aren't too fond of him.
So we spent one night in Bangkok (and the world's your oyster) and then took a night bus to Chiang Mai. Now this was a total VIP bus. The seats reclined almost fully and we were provided with blankets, snacks and some drinks (of the non alcoholic variety)! If only Greyhound and National Express coaches were this great, bus travel would be so pleasant! We were looking forward to Chiang Mai but also to retuning to Bangkok!
We arrived in Chiang Mai in the really early hours (6am) and our poor host, Teera, stayed up and waited for us so he could pick us up from the bus station! It's a good thing he is a night owl! We went for a traditional Thai breakfast which was like a creamy rice porridge with whole eggs and ginger...and pork balls! It tasted quite good once I scooped out the pork balls and gave them to Perry!
To us, Chiang Mai seemed like a beach town, only without the beach. It has lots of streets with cafes, bars, restaurants, pedestrians, and massage parlors and it is VERY laid back! The activities on the other hand are quite pricy, with the minimum you pay for an activity around £50. That is for things like zip-lining, which we already did in India, and elephant riding which we decided against doing as we have read how bad it is for the elephants. So we decided to rent bicycles for 24 hours (for the price of £1 each) and ride around the city. We rode everywhere, to the river, through the streets and so on. It is such a cycle friendly city as it is super flat. It was nice to avoid the tuk tuk drivers for the day and not have to continuously haggle or get ripped off. Many tourists decide to rent scooters but neither of us were too comfortable riding one. Those that know me know that I don't even have a drivers license and hate even riding a bike on the street and always ride on sidewalks as often as possible. Well, riding on the sidewalk is not an option in Chiang Mai because there is no gradual "on ramp" that sidewalks tend to have in many places and they had a massive ledge instead. This meant that I had to ride on the street with all the cars and mopeds and tuk tuks, oh my! I was super uncomfortable at first but over the 2 days of cycling, I became super confident and can now say that I am thinking of FINALLY getting my drivers license (mainly so that I can get a hot pink polka-dotted moped/scooter and ride around in style!)
We enjoyed an abundance of Pad Thai, Chang beer, rotees (similar to a crepe/pancakes), and fruit from the fruit stands. Oh, I should also mention that Thailand is FULL of 7-11s. Way more than in North America. Every street has at least one or two. This is great cause it means we can cool off with SLURPEES! Although they are pure sugar, they are very refreshing and a guilty pleasure! And those that know us know that Perry and I had our very own slurpee encounter before we started dating, so this highly caloric concoction holds a dear place in our hearts!
We ended off the day by going to the Night Bazaar and wishing we (this is more me wishing rathe than Perry wishing) had five empty suitcases to bring stuff back with us. We will have to make another trip to Thailand and bring 5 empty suitcases each.
The next day we decided to splurge £2.80 and get hour long foot massages. It was very suitable as we had just returned our bikes and unfortunately we didn't think to ask if they offered butt massages (which I'm sure they would if we asked) but the foot massages were the next best thing. They even gave us a bit of a back, neck and shoulder massage! Following the massages and some more Pad Thai, we made our way to the most popular temple in Chiang Mai: Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep was very beautiful. It is high up so gives a view of Chiang Mai and it is very ornamental with lots of gold decor. Now, I have read on many occasions that Thai people consider feet to be the dirtiest/filthiest part of the body and you are not supposed to point your feet towards anybody/touch anybody with your feet/sit with your feet in the direction of another person and so on. Most places require you to remove your shoes before entering as well. Not just temples, but also hotels and even some shops. So when we were walking around the temple and I pointed at a photo album that was leaning on the floor with my foot (without even thinking- it was just an impulse), I got my first lesson as to how offended the locals get when it comes to feet. The man whom the album belonged to picked it up faster than you can say "oops" and pointed his finger at me and said "BAD!" multiple times. Oops!!! I am now super careful when it comes to feet and although I had read up on this offensive act multiple times, it's still not something to easily remember when you are not used to it. Oh and it is also very bad and offensive to touch or pat people's heads. At one point there was this sweet little girl and I reached my hand out towards her head and at the last second I remembered that its a big no no. It was like a slow motion scene cause Perry and I both realized and it was like a huge sigh of relief when I pulled my hand away quicker than lightning! Phewf! I dread to think the punishment I would have received for actually patting her head. It's hard to get used to an idea or an action that you don't usually think twice about doing but I think I have become paranoid enough now as to avoid the feet and head situation.
On our final evening in Chiang Mai, our host took us to a local favorite for a feast of frogs (for Perry and Teera), papaya salad, prawns amongst other things. We then went out to his weekly activity of salsa dancing. I have been trying to get Perry to go salsa dancing with me for YEARS so Teera gets bonus points for convincing Perry to go within 5 minutes of meeting him. And I think he secretly loved it as well. He was actually really good and a complete natural so I look forward to dragging him to some salsa classes when we return to England :-)
The journey to Laos
The following day we began our lengthy 3-day journey to Luang Prabang, Laos. This consisted of a mini-van from Chiang Mai to the border in Chiang Khong where we overnighted after a stop at the beautiful White Temple in Chiang Rai, and then a 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong River with an overnight stop in the village of Pakbeng.
The slow boat is quite an experience as it is a form of transport used by both locals and tourists so we pass by many small villages along the Mekong and drop off and pick people up. However, the comfort level is definitely at a low. The seats consist of car seats that are not fixed to the boat, so they can move around slightly. Like when someone sits in their seat, more often than not, the seat moves back a bit (especially when they fall heavily in it rather than sit gently) which minimizes the already minimal leg room! Although there was a massive lack in comfort, the views and sunset made up for it! Not much to say for the village of Pakbeng either. It seems to be full of crooks and drug dealers. We were glad to be there for just a night!
Luang Prabang was a very quaint little town. Again, very laid back and similar to a beach town like Chiang Mai. There is also a night bazaar which made me wish I had another 5 empty suitcases!!
There happen to be a number of food stalls that act as a buffet. There is a long stretch of bowls filled with a variety of food like noodles, spring rolls, pumpkin, potatoes, fruits etc. You pay 10,000 Kip (the equivalent to £.90 or $1.30) for a plate that you can fill as much as you want. You can then get it heated up (which a lot of the tourists didn't realize so we were lucky). I should mention that the food isn't covered and doesn't sit on hot plates. Because of these reasons, we were heavily advised not to eat at these joints by the travel guides so we were planning on avoiding them but it was so easy on the wallet and we saw so many people eating at these stalls that the turnover was quite high (meaning the food was being replenished often) so we decided to just go for it! Not going to lie, we didn't feel super great after it. We had to just suck it up because we were warned after all!
The next morning we strolled around town and visited a couple of temples. We climbed up Phousi Hill (try asking the locals how to get to Phousi Hill with a straight face...the "Ph" makes a "P" sound, not an "f") for a view of the city and to visit another temple. It was super hot so the climb up the hill did not help matters. We were drenched in sweat. We returned to the guest house and got ready to go visit some waterfalls. As we were waiting for the shuttle bus, there was a girl sat down outside that looked very familiar. I asked her if she was from Vancouver and surely enough she was so I was certain that I must know her. After discussing where we went to school and which neighborhoods we lived in to try and figure out where we may know each other from, we came to the conclusion that she was the hairstylist that chopped off my hair during a hair competition and gave me an amazing hair cut a couple of years ago! And here we both were at the same guest house in Laos. What a small small world!
Our shuttle eventually arrived and off we were to the Kuang Si waterfalls. This place was unreal and felt like paradise. The waterfall was layered with several tiers feeding into one another so there were many different areas you could swim in. The water was cold and super refreshing and it looked like blue kool-aid. We put the waterproof camera to the test and got some fun photos. There was a rope tied to a tree that you could swing off of into the water but we decided to just spectate rather than test it out! We spent about two hours here but could have spent much more. It was so relaxing and serene and as mentioned, paradise!
The following day we headed to the town of Veng Vieng. This town used to be a big party town. There is a river that people used to tube down and all along the river used to be little shacks selling beer so you would spend the day floating down and getting really drunk. Unfortunately, this resulted in quite a few deaths as some would do stupid things like jump from ropes etc and crack their heads. Most of the accidents were fueled by drugs and alcohol so less than a year ago, the government came in and knocked down all the shacks selling beer and banned the tubing for a short while. The tubing is now open again and there are a select few shacks selling beverages including beer but it is nothing like it used to be. It's been referred to as a ghost town now and many don't like it but we found it quite relaxing.
When we arrived, we headed to a local park that had a massive cave (called Tham Jang) and a small swimming hole/pool to cool off. It was intensely hot in the cave and we were drenched because of the humidity and dampness so the swimming in the little pool was super refreshing. There is a suspension bridge leading to the park which does not feel like the sturdiest thing known to man. The annoying thing is that riders of scooters and motorbikes insist on riding over this bridge even though it already feels like it is going to collapse and has lose pieces of planks and even though there is a sign forbidding it. How lazy are they that they can't park their bikes and walk across the bridge rather than ultimately destroy the bridge which means more of their own money will be spent repairing the bridge in the future!
Following the visit to the cave, we headed to the centre which is basically just restaurants and bars that play South Park and Friends episodes all day long on big screens and with the volume really loud.
The next day we decided to try out the tubing..when we left the guest house, it was like a ghost town. It was about 10am and there was nobody out except the shop owners and us. We felt bad for the businesses as they depend on the tourists but it is so quiet now. Even when we went tubing, we only saw a few others on the river...apparently there used to be hundreds. It was supposed to take us about 3 hours to float down but in the end it took about 5.5 as there was absolutely no current and the water was completely still except for a few short segments of tiny rapids. It was fun but super long. By the end we were ready to get out. The novelty only lasted so long. The rest of our time in Laos was spent sitting in the restaurants and watching Friends episodes while drinking cheap Laobeer...and then came the 30 hour long journey to Vietnam...